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Lords of the Samurai

A Refreshing Perspective

At the mention of the word “samurai", the mind immediately fills with romantic images of a warrior willing to die rather than betray his honor, of men bravely riding into battle on horseback, swiftly cutting down all before them, and perhaps even of secret trysts with exotic princesses under softly falling cherry blossoms. Most of us have likely gleaned what little knowledge we have of the samurai from popular culture -- The Last Samurai, The Seven Samurai, "Heroes", and various other portrayals of this mysterious brotherhood of warriors.

While these portrayals are surely to some extent correct, they are also rather romanticized and one-sided. Americans love good fights and good love stories, but the life of a samurai involved much more than this. The Asian Art Museum now offers audiences the opportunity to deepen their understanding of all the facets of the samurai lifestyle in its Lords of the Samurai exhibition.

Featuring over 160 objects, the exhibition comes to the Bay Area from Japan’s Eisei-Bunko Museum and consists almost entirely of the collection of the Hosokawa family, a warrior clan whose roots stretch back to the 12th century. The Hosokawa were daimyo, or samurai lords, who under Japan’s feudal system were subject only to the power of the shogun and the emperor. Thus, the exhibition contains many wonderful objects representative of a long line of samurai warriors and lords -- not only their ornately beautiful battle gear, but also poetry, paintings, pottery, and other exquisite cultural artifacts.

Despite popular western conceptions, the samurai were not just warriors. Their way called for balance between bun and bu, translated as “culture” and “arms". Similar to the ancient Athenians, the samurai valued balance between military prowess and might, and the refinements of cultural achievement: both were deemed not only important but necessary. Thus, many samurai were not only warriors but talented poets and painters, patrons of the arts, and masters of tea ceremony.

This balance is apparent in subtle ways when one examines many of the objects in the exhibition closely. The several full sets of samurai armor display not only a concern for protection and comfort, with their leather and iron plates and waterproofing lacquer, but also an exquisite attention to aesthetic beauty and nature.

Large knots of scarlet silk adorn the back of the armor while gauntlets are lavishly decorated with delicate images of flowers and butterflies. Many are lined and decorated with brightly colored silk fabric embroidered with gold thread. One of the fearsome helmets has enormous horns resembling those of an antelope, but which in fact represent the plants and trees bending in the wind.

Perhaps one of the most beautiful displays is that of the many sword guards in the collection- objects that have been specifically designated by the Japanese government as Important Cultural Properties. Most are made of iron openwork with gold or copper inlay, or of etched iron, and depict surprising representations. The images are not of fearsome animals or implements of battle, but of a dancing crane, a quince blossom, water droplets, and the moon reflected in rice paddies. Merely looking closely at the everyday objects of the samurai reveals an incredible sensitivity and appreciation for nature and for beauty -- and for the brevity of life.

The organization of the exhibition serves to further underscore this sense of balance so paramount to the samurai way of life. Displays of armor and swords are placed side-by-side with sublime works of poetry (written by samurai) and richly embroidered robes used in [Noh (a form of drama which, along with Kyogen, was often studied by samurai).

Along the same lines is a display of both the military and artistic works of Miyamoto Musashi, a ronin (samurai who has lost his master) famous for his prowess in battle and his talent for painting. Miyamoto Musashi developed the method of fighting with two swords and wrote The Book of Five Rings, a military and philosophical treatise often compared with Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Contained in The Book of the Five Rings are not only lengthy discussions of swords and the elements of other schools of fighting, but also wonderfully simple aphorisms such as, “Do not do anything useless,” and “Understand the harm and benefit in everything.” It is here, and in Miyamoto’s paintings, that we can see the influence of Zen Buddhism and the extraordinary beauty of simplicity.

The allure of the Lords of the Samurai exhibition lies not only in its presentation of fascinating military artifacts, but in its juxtaposition of the brutal life of the warrior with the sensitive hearts of artists and poets.

Lords of the Samurai
At the Asian Art Museum
Runs through September 20th
Tickets: $5-$17